Having closely interacted with the various persons (caretaker Sisters and resident girls) at the Bethzaitha Rehabilitation Center for Orthopaedically Handicapped Girls (Bethzaitha hereafter) for almost two years, I feel compelled to bring some of their stories to light.
But then the question that instantly strikes me is how to write about a place inhabited by 15 orthopaedically challenged girls, who quietly and happily go about their tasks, living their lives, without necessarily making it seem like another ‘inspiring’ tale of disabled persons. Inspiring, and not inspiring, because, over the two years, I have heard numerous people who have heard of them, feel inspired – which really translates to a feeling of relative goodness for oneself, especially in relation to someone else. Someone who is not them, someone who they see as slightly lesser, diminished, reduced – something that interacting with these girls over a two year period made me realize they are not. They are quite the opposite. Are they inspiring figures? Yes, some of them are, as you will soon realize. But not for the reasons most of us find them to be.
Let ‘enriching of perspective’, then, be the starting point of this article.
On 19th March 1927, Father Varghese Payapilly, a resident of Thevara, founded the Congregation of the Sisters of the Destitute with 5 nuns. The numbers, both of the Sisters and the ones they had to care for steadily grew over the years, and it was on 24th September 1990 that the Bethzaitha Rehabilitation Centre was founded under the aegis of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Destitute. Apart from Bethzaitha, there are a total of 45 such houses where more than 1600 Sisters render service to the old, physically handicapped, mentally challenged and destitute. Bethzaitha’s vision is an integrated development of all people irrespective of caste, creed, sex or religion, while their mission, as delineated in their brochure is ‘to spread the compassionate love of Jesus Christ through providing love, care and support to the orthopedically challenged girls’.
In one of his interviews, when asked about which part of history really interests him the most, the author Amitav Ghosh replied that it were the little nuances of ordinary life in a particular historical epoch that most piqued his curiosity. He explained that it was through building on the ‘small things’, say, how ordinary people go about their lives, that one got a clearer, more accurate sense of history. It took me a while to realize that such an idea not only holds true for understanding history, but for understanding people, places and everything in between. So then, almost two years into my association with Bethzaitha, I found myself wondering what are the real, everyday lives of the girls and the Sisters who take care of them about? What consists of their happiness, their sadness, their routines, their little every day struggles – just like the ones any of us face? And surprisingly enough, when I went out to find these ‘answers’, I realized that just as many were startlingly new, as were the ones which were similar.
Their day starts with prayers and breakfast at around 0530. After breakfast, most of the girls go to the mission run school, while the elder ones, stay back and help the sisters in the daily chores. Some of these chores such as cutting vegetables, cleaning, dusting and the like are fairly mundane, just like most of the jobs normal people work at. But someone like Shaila, 48 and Jumol, 35 (two of the oldest ones in the home) do something more exciting. They are either busy making plastic flowers, crowns and bouquets that the local church buys for its festivities, paper bags to be sold to local vendors, and sharply cut plastic boxes lined by a layer of Thermacol that is used by local vendors to transport antennas.
In effect, they are the ones who generate an income for themselves, that, the Sisters are quick to point out, are credited to their accounts. Some of them also tend to a flourishing garden, which has bananas, chilies and papaya trees. I was surprised to know that they get paid for the work they do, which is later spent on nail polish, clips, trinkets and other smaller pieces of jewelry. Sister Maria Rose’s eyes gleamed while she mentioned this odd detail.
Post-lunch time is the time for physiotherapy, bathing and washing. Evening again brings with it the solemnity of prayer and spiritual readings from the Holy Bible, dinner and recreational time, when the girls sing and dance and make merry, or simply sit around, talking and laughing.
“So do the girls have homes, families, whom they go back to?”, I asked Sister Jiya, who replied, that yes most of them have families. In fact all of them except for one, is from or around Kochi. “We make it a point that once a year they go back home to their parents and families to keep in touch.”
“And how do their families respond to them?”, I asked. She turned stiff and replied, “Families are reluctant to see or keep them. They face problems of acceptance because of their deformity. Mostly it is the close family members; the parents, siblings who show a lack of acceptance.”
“So I surmise that they are rejected from their homes, and are not homeless per say?”, I asked. To which she agreed, although she did mention that some of the girls here were orphans, but the ones who had homes, were sent there, if only for a few days in a year. “Actually some of them are quite upset when they return. Not because they miss home, but because they return from neglect and rejection”, Sister Maria Rose added. Such an observation strongly reinforces how powerful and relevant the social model of disability (drawing on the idea that it is society that disables people, through designing everything to meet the needs of the majority of people who are not disabled, and through their responses) is over the medical model (which views disability as a ‘problem’ that belongs to the disabled individual. It is not seen as an issue to concern anyone other than the individual), and the need to change such a perception towards disabled people.
Jeanette Winterson once wrote, every story has within it other stories. I was taken in when I inquired about where some of the girls came from, what are their circumstances and such. I got to know about Piyali (name changed), who is deaf and dumb. They said she used to live in the nearby Vathuruthy settlements, was married, even had a child, as appears from her expressions and what she often tries to communicate. Although she is mostly incomprehensible, her eyes are a different story – full of an eagerness to tell, they brighten at the prospect of someone ready to listen. That she can’t speak doesn’t come in the way of her trying again and again, to narrate some prized incident that only exists in her memory, which is a shut vault now, whose language key is lost to the world forever.
There are others who intrigue – not because they have a disability, but because of their inherent qualities. One of them knows five languages, while another girl makes beautiful landscape paintings. They all love to sing, fervently looking forward to their Sunday evening ritual of television and dancing. “Each one of them does some work. These two things, work and companionships, give them a sense of meaning”, Sister Maria Rose tells me. As I close my notebook, put the cap back on my pen, and prepare to leave, an odd quote, maybe by Khalil Gibran, comes to me, and I know, I will use it in the end of this article, “How can I lose faith in the justice of life, when the dreams of those who sleep upon feathers are not more beautiful than the dreams of those who sleep upon the earth?”
I have also written about all of them in The Hindu. You can find the article here.